The Senate voted today to approve an amendment stripping out a provision from the Department of Transportation's fiscal year 2016 appropriations bill requiring all states to allow longer twin-trailers on the national highway system. The vote dealt a blow to commercial interests and set up a debate with the House of Representatives, which kept the language in its version of the appropriations measure, passed in June.
House and Senate negotiators will meet to hammer out final language for DOT and U.S. Housing and Urban Development FY 2016 budgets. The DOT and HUD budgets could be part of an omnibus bill that covers all appropriations—a "CRomnibus" bill, which could be handled as part of a continuing resolution that extends provisions of existing law—or a "Minibus" measure encompassing appropriations bills of several agencies. The current DOT and HUD legislation expires on Dec. 11.
The Senate's decision comes about five months after the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to include language that would allow twin-trailers each 33 feet long to operate on the 160,000-mile national network. Current law, in effect since 1982, caps the length of each trailer at 28 feet, although 11 states allow longer combination vehicles on their portions of the national network.
The amendment, offered by Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), barred the Senate from approving the longer trailers until DOT conducted a study of their safe operation. Earlier this year, an agency report recommended that Congress maintain current truck size and weight limits, saying it lacked sufficient safety data to recommend any changes at that time. On Friday, the Senate passed a nonbinding motion to exclude provisions allowing nationwide use of the larger twins in its version of the federal transport-spending bill, which is currently before House-Senate conferees.
The fight pitted commercial interests—mostly shippers, parcel, and less-than-truckload carriers—against organized labor, highway safety advocates, and truckload carriers. The American Trucking Associations (ATA) supported the measure, which put the group, which represents large, for-hire motor carriers, at odds with a number of its big truckload-carrier members.
Double trailers are mostly operated by package-delivery and less-than-truckload (LTL) carriers, whose shipments nearly always fill out a trailer's cubic dimensions before their loads hit the federally mandated 80,000-pound gross vehicle weight limit, which is the combined weight of the rig, trailer, and cargo. Because the explosive growth of e-commerce will dramatically increase the shipping of lightweight packages, a 10-foot cubic increase would allow carriers to more cost-effectively manage their capacity, according to supporters of the measure.
Supporters contend that the longer twin-trailers come with longer wheelbases that promote better handling and stability compared to rigs hauling 28-foot trailers. They also maintain that by filling each of the longer trailers with more freight, carriers can reduce the number of vehicles they run.
Opponents argued that the additional length would create a 96-foot combination that would make it harder for drivers to safely merge onto highways and navigate on- and off-ramps. The national infrastructure was not designed to safely accommodate vehicles of the increased lengths, according to those fighting the measure.
In a statement, Bill Graves, ATA's president and CEO, expressed disappointment with the Senate vote. He added that it is "inevitable" that the change will occur, because there are so many benefits to the longer trailers. "Decision makers cannot continue to embrace unsafe and unproductive strategies and expect to have this nation's freight continue to get delivered," Graves said. "Ultimately, the economy will win this debate."
Chuck Baker, president of the National Railroad Construction and Maintenance Association, applauded the Senate's action, calling it a "victory for safety, for taxpayers, for the traveling public, and for railroads, rail contractors, and rail suppliers."